"This isn't about me. This isn't about politics," President Obama said last week when talking about his push for overhauling the nation's health care system.
Actually, it is about him. The president has to know that the best chance for congressional enactment of his health care initiative is to make it about him. Otherwise, why would he put himself out there every day, giving interviews, holding a prime-time news conference, delivering speeches? The public is not sure about the policy, but it does not want to bring this president down. The more it's about him, the more he's likely to win.
Obama has to do the sales job he is doing because doubts about the proposal have been growing. Suddenly, the president finds himself being challenged not just by Republicans but also by moderate Blue Dog Democrats in the House. One reason: His poll numbers have dropped. His critics smell vulnerability.
There has been some decline in Obama's overall job-approval rating. In early June, those numbers averaged 62 percent. But three polls taken in July averaged 56 percent approval.
What created a stir in Washington was that an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that Obama's approval rating on his handling of health care had dropped from 57 percent in April to 49 percent in July. In the three July polls that measured the president's approval rating on health care, his average was only 47 percent, meaning less than half the public supports Obama on this issue.
The president is more popular than his health care initiative. That explains why he is putting himself on the line to rally public support. Republicans are playing into his hands by making it all about him. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., told Politico, "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, urged Republicans to "go for the kill."
Obama drew attention to those attacks at his news conference last week. "I've heard that one Republican strategist told his party that, even though they may want to compromise, it's better politics to go for the kill," he said. "Another Republican senator [said] that defeating health care reform is about breaking me."
The president argues that we must act now because the problem is so urgent and the country has been waiting for health care reform for decades. Asked "Why the rush?" at his news conference, Obama responded, "I'm rushed because I get letters every day from families that are being clobbered by health care costs."
In a Gallup Poll that came out last week, 71 percent of Americans said they wanted Congress to pass health care reform. But only 41 percent demanded that it be done this year. After waiting for decades, a lot of Americans think they can wait a little longer if that's what it takes to get it right.
Obama's urgency is being driven by politics. A president is best positioned to get big things done, such as health care reform, during his first year in office. That is when he is most likely to enjoy the people's goodwill. They voted for change. The president's job-approval number is the Dow Jones industrial average of Washington. When it's high, he has clout. When his numbers drop, he loses power. The decline in the president's ratings is a message: He has to act now, before his numbers drop any further.
Consider the lesson of 1994. It was a Democratic Congress that failed to deliver health care reform to President Clinton. Congress wounded its own president and forced him to shrink his agenda to the "safety net." But congressional Democrats are the ones who paid the price. The party lost its majority in the House for the first time in 40 years. Do Democrats in Congress want to take that risk again? Do they want to bring down their own president -- and possibly themselves?
Those are the stakes. As Obama reminded them in his weekly address last Saturday. "Some have even suggested that, regardless of its merits, health care reform should be stopped as a way to inflict political damage on my administration," Obama noted. "I'll leave it to them to explain that to the American people."
This article appears in the August 1, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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